The problem with Referendums and why Britain should hold a second Brexit Referendum

12 months on from the British public’s decision to exit the European Union it’s time to reflect on that decision and consider whether a second referendum is appropriate.

The problem with referendums

A Turkey

The fundamental problem with a Referendum is that it needs to deliver a result and in so doing boils down a (potentially) complex problem into a very simple question devoid of all nuances.  Consider the question posed to turkeys:

“Shall we keep Christmas?”

You might expect a resounding percentage of turkeys to vote no i.e. let’s abolish Christmas.

But hang on just a second, if there is no Christmas then what is the alternative life path for me as a turkey?  What if abolishing Christmas leads to a permanent reduction in the demand for turkeys?  Maybe a vote to abolish Christmas is good for me as a turkey but what about turkeykind?

Which brings us to the second point in that it’s easy to say that we don’t want something (which is generally the bad stuff like austerity, higher taxes etc.) but, because a referendum requires a binary response it can neither stratify the result into preferences (e.g. I’d be happy to pay higher taxes if it resulted in less austerity) and in the case of Brexit it cannot be seen as an endorsement of a particular course of action as none were presented (a simple in or out of the EU is not an alternative).  The point is discussed more eloquently in this blog post by Thomas Colignatus who states that by phrasing the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union”?  It’s impossible to answer the referendum question as a yes or no because actually the voter does not know what they are voting for.
— Leave, and adopt an EFTA or WTO framework?
— Leave, while the UK remains intact or while it splits up?
— Remain, in what manner?

Perhaps more importantly, any rational decision about which way to vote in the referendum must be based on a mixture of the facts and feelings or emotional responses.  Consider the following hypothetical referendum question:


“Is it right that only intelligent people be allowed to vote?”

We could attempt to add some context to enable voters to reach a factual conclusion for example by providing a definition of intelligence i.e. we could say “only those who can pat their head and rub their stomach at the same time are considered intelligent”.  We challenge the underlying definition of intelligence but importantly framing the question to deliver a yes / no answer allows no color behind the decision.  For example, we cannot determine if an individual might say “I agree that only intelligent people should be allowed to vote but I want people to be given the chance to attend simultaneous head patting / tummy rubbing lessons”.

Bring that analogy back to the Brexit referendum, voters knew neither the factual definition of Brexit nor were they allowed to give any context behind the reasoning in arriving at their decision to vote in or out.

But let’s have a referendum anyway

Of course the political establishment were and have remained vacuous on the topic.  The Brexit debate was notable by its lack of basic accurate facts and any facts that attempted to put their head above the parapet were crushed by the banner emblazoned Boris Bus or drowned out by the chants of “we want our country back”.

Who thought this was a good idea?

On a number of critical topics its only now that were beginning to understand the implications evidenced by both the toing and froing regarding Britain’s Brexit bill and more recently the research commissioned by Amber Rudd to understand the contribution that EU migrants make to the UK economy ( Really?  A year after the government allowed a decision to be made to leave they now want to understand whether it’s a good idea or not?

So, faced with a paucity of facts and a lack of information about the benefits or otherwise of EU membership, the possible consequences of leaving and the potential future relationship the British public did what some would say it was predestined to do.  It voted to leave the EU.  Not because it has necessarily made a rational decision based on all the information presented (after all how could it?) but based on scaremongering and, after years of austerity and low wage growth, it was the opportunity to give the establishment a good kicking whether those reasons actually had anything to do with membership of the EU or not.

Let’s be polite and consider this a political misjudgment.

Be quiet and just get on with it

Of course the leavers would argue that this was a democratic decision so let’s stop moaning and get on with it.  But can someone please explain to me what “it” actually is?

It’s possible that the government thinks that the general public is not sufficiently informed about institutions such as the role of the European Court of Justice to be able to make a judgment about whether our membership is a good thing or not.  I know for sure I’m not.  However, I rely on the government to digest these matters for me and come up with a policy which achieves the best result taking into account the complexity of issues over which the EU has jurisdiction.

That’s only one example, if you’re brave enough – you can read about the potential impact across all policy areas here .  Maybe then we can have a discussion about what exactly we should be getting on with.

What could have been done differently?

Without presenting in a clear and non-political way the facts regarding Britain’s membership, an illustration of the options for our future relationship and an objective assessment of the impact (financial, social, legal) of that future relationship, the decision to allow a referendum on UK’s membership was at best misguided (irrespective of whether you are a leaver or a remainer).

Its right that the UKs membership of the EU should be periodically debated, after all it underpins a number of economic, social and defense issues.

Maybe the government should have offered a consultation which allowed an orderly debate without being as conclusive a binding vote e.g.  a question such as:

“On balance, do you feel positively or negatively about the UK’s relationship with the EU”

We seem to be able to pose such opinion type questions for creams and potions or cat food but on a complex question like membership of the EU?  Of course not – we need a yes or no answer!

This would also have allowed the inclusion of opinion type questions to more accurately gauge public sentiment on the main issues and tradeoffs, for example,

“Would you be prepared to allow free movement of people if there were appropriate checks and balances on claiming of benefits?”


“Would you be prepared to pay higher prices for goods and services if more low skilled jobs are taken by higher paid British born workers?”

Of course such a survey would be a complex and a lengthy logistical undertaking but I would say worth the investment given the potential long term impacts (and especially now that the government acknowledges that there will need to be an extended transition period prior to an actual exit

Unfortunately that horse has bolted and no such orderly process will take place.

So what now?

There are also those who claim that Brexit is not the will of the British people and while I don’t subscribe to all the points in the blog, I am a case in point having been away from the UK for more than 15 years with no right to vote but having my current and future rights potentially seriously impaired by a decision in which I have no say.

Let’s suppose for a moment that a politician could ever openly admit to a mistake (we’re all human after all), what then?  Well, if we were living in a rational world then the next logical steps would be to acknowledge that the original referendum was flawed because:

  • There were insufficient (preferably independently verified) facts presented (of the costs and benefits of the UK’s relationships with the EU),
  • Limited knowledge or discussion of the consequences;
  • No clear view on the alternatives.

No politician will agree they have made a colossal misjudgment but with the summer recess here it would be right for MPs (without party political bias) to agree to soften their stance with the EU and to open the door to a second future referendum.  That referendum would follow the outcome of the current factual studies and an outline of the UKs position on a future relationship in the main policy areas.

In the period leading up to that second referendum the government then needs to actively engage with the electorate on the critical issues (immigration, security, trade) to ensure that the position on each is fully understood and factually supportable and more importantly embedded in the negotiating position / policy.

Will it happen?  Probably not but 12 months ago who would have believed …

Strange times.

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